Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): causes, symptoms and treatment

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic bowel disorder and a common condition for many people today. Is modern day stress the main cause?

What are the symptoms, and how can it be treated?

This article on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is written by Sarah Dawson, a freelance journalist who writes for national and international newspapers, magazines and websites.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a disorder of the digestive tract which affects as many as one in five of us at some point in our lives, most likely between the ages of 15 and 40. It's also a very individual condition and it affects people in different ways.

Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhoea or constipation, frequent bowel motions, bloating, abdominal tenderness and swelling. IBS is believed to be linked to stress and because of the strong connection between the bowels and the brain, symptoms can also include headaches, nervousness, depression and anxiety. In fact, the NHS report that up to 60 per cent of people with IBS have psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression.

People are generally affected by one symptom more than another, and IBS tends to be more common in women than men. For some people, the symptoms are so mild they almost go unnoticed, but others may describe IBS as a debilitating disease. If the main symptom is diarrhoea then food passes through the digestive system faster than usual, while constipated and bloated sufferers complain that the bowels don't feel fully emptied after going to the toilet. Some people experience sharp, gripping abdominal cramps and pain in the abdomen, which can get better - or worse - by opening the bowels, passing wind or eating. 

IBS sufferers often feel an urgent need to open their bowels, and stools vary in consistency. Excessive wind, burping, bad breath, nausea, vomiting and indigestion, a sense of fullness, back and groin pain, lethargy, disturbed sleep and a need to urinate more frequently - sometimes quite urgently - are other reported symptoms.


Bowel contents are moved along by a series of rhythms which tighten and relax segments of the intestine - this process is called 'peristalsis'. The peristalsis movements are stronger, more frequent, and noisier in IBS sufferers, causing abdominal rumblings as the gases are moved through the intestines. Health professionals find it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of IBS, but it is described as a functional disorder, which means that the way the bowel normally operates is affected.

For many people, IBS occurs after a stressful or emotional period. It is also thought that IBS is triggered by hormones, and symptoms can worsen for a woman during her menstrual period. IBS can also develop after a gastrointestinal infection or an inflammation of the stomach and bowel linings which causes sickness and diarrhoea. The diet is also a major contributing factor and food intolerances to products like wheat and dairy can wreak havoc on the working of the innards. Gas producing vegetables such as beans can aggravate symptoms as can sugar, alcohol and caffeine.

After explaining your symptoms to your GP he/she will probably give you a physical examination. Your GP will make further investigations to rule-out other more serious conditions if there are additional symptoms which are of concern. These include: bleeding from the rectum, blood with the stools, weight loss, anaemia, if you're aged over 45, and have a family history of cancer or inflammatory bowel disease. You might be asked to provide a stool test or to have an X-ray of the bowel taken after a barium enema (when the colon is filled with a liquid that shows up on X-rays).

Managing your symptoms

Once you're diagnosed with IBS, it is likely to persist for some time. However, irritable bowel syndrome symptoms can come and go, and for long periods of time they may disappear completely. The best 'cure' for your IBS is to understand it, know what triggers it then aim to avoid the frequency and intensity of the symptoms. Fortunately, there are a number of measures which will alleviate, and potentially eliminate the symptoms, not least is watching what you eat.

Dieticians recommend cutting out spicy and fatty foods, particularly if diarrhoea is your main complaint, and avoid irritants like tea, coffee, alcohol, sugar and artificial sweeteners. Try swapping your tea and coffee for calming, soothing herbal teas like peppermint, fennel and chamomile. People with constipation should try to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables (roughage) and drink lots of water to flush out the system. If bloating or wind is a problem, eliminate gas-producing foods such as beans.  Keep a food diary, noting how your bowels respond to certain dishes. An imbalance in the gut, for example, after a course of antibiotics can trigger IBS symptoms so try some natural bio yoghurt to rebalance the flora in your gut.

One thing for sure is that IBS affects everyone differently so what works for one person, won't necessarily for another. You can identify 'trigger foods' - those which aggravate irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, avoid them for a while to see if any changes or improvements occur, then gradually reintroduce them one at a time. Regular exercise to keep fit and healthy is very important as moderate daily exercise helps ease the passage of waste through the system.


Complementary therapies like acupuncture and reflexology are also gaining more kudos for alleviating or managing IBS, and because stress has a big impact, learning how to manage the stress in your life is also very beneficial. Research suggests that a self-hypnosis technique, which relaxes the mind, the body (and the bowels) has very positive results. Keeping a record of when symptoms occur can also be useful because if certain events are identified as triggers it may be easier to deal with the stress of them. There are also medicine/tablets available over the counter. Antispasmodics such as Colofac slow contractions in the bowel to help with diarrhoea and pain. If you have really severe pain your GP might prescribe antidepressants to block the transmission of pain from the gut to the brain. An anti-diarrhoea medicine such as Imodium is OK in the short-term and the laxative Fybogel, can be helpful for constipation, while peppermint oil capsules are thought to help relieve pain and wind.

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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): causes, symptoms and treatment
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